Talking Travel, Business, and Possibility with Martyn Sibley
An entrepreneur who won’t let his disability define his potential
By: Muneer Huda
A peek into Martin’s crazy-cool lifestyle as a disabled social entrepreneur shows the freedom of what’s possible with a little determination and conviction
He’s flown over Stonehenge, gone scuba diving in Tenerife, sailing in Poland and crossed half the world to earn his degree in economics and marketing. And he did it all out of a wheelchair.
Martyn Sibley is a social entrepreneur, writer, educator and disability advocate. He was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and has to use a wheelchair all waking hours of the day. But that doesn’t stop him from going where he pleases and doing what he likes.
As Martyn joins me for our scheduled interview, I can see he is tired. Having read up on some of his adventures I have no doubt he’s been up to something wild and I’m eager to hear the details. Martyn doesn’t disappoint.
He happily tells of his holiday in Poland, where he went to catch the Woodstock music festival and visit his girlfriend’s family. While there, Martyn was asked to be part of a local campaign to raise awareness about people with disabilities. Being his wonderful self, Martyn easily accepted. He joined a lady travelling2500km around Poland in her wheelchair for the last stretch of her journey. The trail took them to Kostrzyn nad Odrą, where the Woodstock music festival was held.
The apt coincidence turned to great opportunity when the Woodstock organizers asked the lady and Martyn to come up on stage and talk about their campaign. To Martyn’s surprise, he found himself in front of 500,000 music lovers, promoting a government petition to aid disabled people. As Martyn sensed the riotous crowd begin to lose interest, he quickly grabbed the mic and shouted, “Woodstock: we fucking love you!”
Martyn and I laugh at his story; he is proud of his brief stint as a rock star. I sit back and wonder two things: how does he do what he does and how can someone like me do it?
The man in the wheelchair
Martyn’s entrepreneurial spirit is apparent from before the start of his journey. Raised in the UK, he deliberately chose to go as far as possible for his education, despite knowing the challenges he would face with travel and mobility. He went to Australia to earn his masters in economics and marketing. Though Martyn didn’t necessarily want to work in the disability sector, he found himself back in London in the HR department of a charity organization, Scope, which aims to help disabled people. It was at Scope that Martyn learned about the breadth of issues faced by disabled people.
Martyn’s journey to becoming self-sufficient took off when he met AJ Leon of Misfit Inc., who helped launch his blog. Within a year Martyn had accumulated a few thousand followers. From there he began his other online projects, including Disability Webinars, Disability eCourses and Disability eConferences, all aimed at helping people with disabilities live a positive and complete life. He also co-founded Disability Horizons, a lifestyle magazine that covers topics as diverse as travelling, relationships, sports and world news. He has now been self-employed for over two years and continues to travel, make media appearances, blog, and plan bold adventures.
In his own eyes, Martyn doesn’t see himself or his achievements as anything special. I personally think his modesty is to blame for such unpretentious thinking. But I needed to know what made him tick, to learn where he drew his strengths from and how others could do the same.
Muneer: Do you ever feel your disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) has held you back from expressing your full potential as an entrepreneur?
Martyn: No, in a weird way it’s the inverse of that. Because now I’m more confident in my message and what I stand for, about being disabled not holding me back. That’s enabled me to live a more out there lifestyle than if I didn’t have the disability. If I wasn’t disabled, I might have found something else to blog about and live a different kind of lifestyle, but in my particular instance it’s my disability that enabled a lot of this cool shit to happen.
Muneer: Many disabled people tend to start a business in the disability sector, sometimes specifically with a product or service centered on their own disability. Why is that?
Martyn: I suppose it’s two fold. From a pure business perspective, any business idea comes from seeing a need in a market place and finding a solution for it. Generally, if you live and breathe and understand that problem, you’re more able to find that solution. Off the back of that, you’re also able to market the solution more authentically. Even though some of the people who aren’t disabled can create some of these business ideas, the community of disabled people isn’t going to buy into it if the person isn’t disabled.
The other part is that there has been so much historical oppression and discrimination against disabled people, and only in the last 20, 30 years is there government policy which funds wheelchairs and social care that disabled people are at last able to empower themselves and become entrepreneurs. In another 20, 30 years if a lot of these problems are addressed, you’ll find disabled entrepreneurs going into other markets.